Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive Sleep Apnea
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So you probably know about sleep apnea, but do you know what Obstructive Sleep Apnea (or “OSA”) is?  Maybe you’ve just been diagnosed with OSA, and want more information.  Maybe you’re curious to see if your daytime sleepiness is caused by OSA?

There are really two types of sleep apnea that doctors refer to: “central” sleep apnea and “obstructive” sleep apnea.  The difference between the two comes down to the cause of the problem – so central sleep apnea is believed to be caused by the brain not regulating breathing properly while you sleep, and obstructive apnea is caused by an “obstruction” that occurs when the muscles at the back of your throat are “limp” and close off your airways.   Obstructive sleep apnea is the commonest form of the condition, and when people refer to “sleep apnea” on the internet they are usually referring to OSA.

Depending on the severity of your OSA, the muscles creating a blockage in your throat can stop you breathing from 10 seconds and beyond while you’re sleeping. This is a scary idea, as anyone who’s shared a bed with someone who stops breathing like that regularly every night can attest to – the sounds the body makes trying to get air in after such an event are frightening. Some OSA events (where you’re not breathing) can last up to 2 minutes! To put this in perspective, try holding your breath at regular intervals during the day for 2 minutes. You quickly come to realise how destructive this could be to your body over time.

Interestingly, OSA can be found among a huge range of age groups (including very small children), although you are more likely to develop the symptoms between 35 to 65 and beyond.  In fact, some studies have suggested that as many as 60 percent of people aged 65 and older have OSA.*

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Causes and Symptoms

The causes of OSA differ, but for the most part, they in some way cause the airways to be blocked.  Being overweight, or having a large neck – wide, not length – for example, means that the muscles around the throat can be “loose”, and in case you want to get out a measuring tape, the dimensions are usually given as anything over 17 inches for men, or 16 for women.

Particular ethnic groups are more at risk, so if you’re Hispanic, a Pacific Islander or African-American you have a better chance than most of having the condition.  If you have what is considered to be a small jaw, an overbite, a recessed chin, a frequent smoking or alcohol-related habit you may also be more at risk for OSA.  Sounds like a lot of us then!  The most unfair thing about Obstructive Sleep Apnea seems to be that they’re looking into a possible genetic cause, which means if your parents or grandparents had OSA you have a good chance of also developing it in life.

including having a small upper airway (or large tongue, tonsils or uvula), being overweight, having a recessed chin, small jaw or a large overbite, a large neck size (17 inches or greater in a man, or 16 inches or greater in a woman), smoking and alcohol use, being age 40 or older, and ethnicity (African-Americans, Pacific-Islanders and Hispanics). Also, OSA seems to run in some families, suggesting a possible genetic basis.

The most common symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnea include:

  • Chronic snoring.  Everyone snores occasionally, but chronic snoring means that it is very loud and ongoing.
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Lack of focus or concentration
  • Memory loss and difficulty learning new things quickly or easily

Risks of OSA

Ok, so you snore, and you’re a little tired sometimes. So what? Well, it turns out that even if you’re considered to have mild obstructive sleep apnea, it’s still doing significant damage to your body.

Let’s look at what’s happening every time your body tries to catch its breath during sleep:  even if your “events” only last for 10 seconds, your body is still being deprived of oxygen for those 10 seconds.  As science is beginning to find out, having this happen on a regular basis for years on end can lead to concentration and memory issues down the track.  Add to this the fact that you’re mostly being dragged out of a deep sleep each time your body has to “wake itself up”.   Sleep specialists agree that adults need around 7 to 8 hours of “proper” sleep per night to function at an optimal rate.  “Proper”, in this sense, means that you’re naturally falling into the deepest form of sleep (known as wave sleep) for at least 20 per cent of the time.  People with sleep apnea often tend not to fall into this deepest sleep at all.

All this combines to put you at risk for some very nasty problems, including heart attack and cardiac death, high blood pressure, depression and even strokes.


The best thing about OSA is that it is easily and quickly treated.

Once you’ve been correctly diagnosed, the symptoms of OSA can often disappear overnight, especially if you’re starting on a CPAP machine.  In fact, CPAP, or Continuous Positive Airway Pressure is usually one of the first treatments a sleep specialist will recommend if you’ve been diagnosed with OSA.  If your OSA is caused by other factors, such as jaw alignment, then further dental treatment may be necessary as well.

Let’s not also forget that if you’re a little overweight, your doctor will suggest slimming down as one way to help the symptoms, and if you smoke or drink, you’ll probably be also asked to either quit or cut down considerably for your health.

*Source: NHS Choices website


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